Nico Rosberg kept his nose clean to win a dramatic Belgian Grand Prix and reassert himself in the drivers championship standings.
Rosberg led off the line from pole, but behind him the grid unravelled as the Ferraris and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen collided at the first turn.
Verstappen, racing before his de facto home crowd, got away poorly from second on the grid and was passed by Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel before the end of the pit straight.
But the Dutchman didn’t fancy giving up two places so easily, and he dived into the apex in an attempt to recover second place.
Räikkönen left him just enough space, but Vettel put his second Ferrari close by on the outside, pinching the three cars together in a collision and himself into a spin. Räikkönen and Verstappen were forced to return to the pits at the end of the lap for lengthy repairs.
More drama was close at hand, and on lap three Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso suffered a spectacular rear-right tyre failure, ending his race on the spot and triggering a virtual safety car.
The cars circulated slowly for a lap before resuming racing speed, but two laps later Kevin Magnussen lost control at the top of Eau Rouge and ended his race with a heavy crash into the barriers.
Magnussen climbed gingerly out of the car and was sent to hospital, where checks uncovered no injury other than a cut to one of his ankles.
The safety car slowed the grid for four laps before race control red-flagged the grand prix to speed up repairs to the badly damaged tyre wall, which gifted a free tyre change to those drivers who didn’t stop when the safety car was first called.
By virtue of not stopping, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton found themselves in fourth and fifth after starting from the back row of the grid, with the former suddenly in contention for the podium.
Both veterans switched onto new sets of the soft compound, as did Daniel Ricciardo in second, but race leader Rosberg adopted a set of new mediums.
The race for the win was poised between the Mercedes pair and Ricciardo, and the trio’s strategies were balanced on attempting to finish the race with just one more stop.
The soft tyre was expected to be the superior race tyre, theoretically putting Ricciardo in a position to attack Rosberg for P1 while Hamilton picked his way past Alonso and Nico Hülkenberg in third.
By lap 18 Hamilton had done so, but Ricciardo was unable to make an impression on the leading Mercedes — the slightly cooler weather compared to Saturday and Friday had brought the track back towards the medium tyre, securing Rosberg’s victory chances.
“It’s been a great weekend, very happy with that result,” Rosberg said. “Congrats to Lewis, from last place to third must’ve been pretty impressive.
“It’s been great of course to get the win today on this special track.
“Lewis starting from the back made it all easier this weekend, [but] I’m sure he’ll be back in Monza and it’ll be a big battle as always.”
With the lead out of reach Ricciardo needed only to keep Hamilton, who switched to a three-stop race after his first set of soft tyres fell away, behind him to guard against the undercut.
The Australian managed to do so with aplomb despite suddenly losing tyre performance at the end of his middle stint, locking in his fourth podium of the year and third in succession.
“It was cool!” Ricciardo enthused. “Obviously it was pretty messed up at the start, and we knew we had a bit of damage from the first corner.
“It was a bit of a race by myself, but obviously I enjoyed the pace, and to keep Lewis behind was an achievement today.”
Hamilton was left to finish third in a supreme race of damage limitation after starting from 21st on the grid.
The reigning world champion started the race with a 19-point championship advantage over his teammate, which he was tipped to lose in the tricky conditions, but he came away from Belgium maintaining a nine-point lead.
“Firstly I’ve got to say thank you — this crowd is incredible today,” he said.
“The team did an amazing job this weekend — I changed three engines — so thanks to the team.
“Just a remarkable day. Great weather, great crowd, great race.”
Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez missed out on podium places, but Force India took home 22 points from their fourth and fifth-place finishes to jump ahead of Williams in the constructors championship.
Sebastian Vettel, notionally the instigator of the first-lap calamity that undid the race, recovered to sixth to salvage eight points in a race he and the team will be keen to forget ahead of the this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.
Fernando Alonso lost only three places after the red flag to hold seventh place for McLaren, fending off Williams’s Valtteri Bottas in the closing stint of the race.
Räikkönen finished ninth for Ferrari, benefiting from the early-race safety car that allowed him to un-lap himself from his slow first pit stop, while Felipe Massa scored his first point for Williams since June’s European Grand Prix after losing ground to the red-clad Finn in the final laps of the grand prix.